Jimmy Buffett, singer-songwriter whose hit Margaritaville captured a way of life for his fans – obituary

Buffett made a fortune from the appeal of his easygoing vision by investing in lucrative businesses, many of them branded Margaritaville

Buffett performs with the Coral Reefer Band in Atlanta, Georgia, 1976
Buffett performs with the Coral Reefer Band in Atlanta, Georgia, 1976 Credit: Tom Hill/WireImage

Jimmy Buffett, the American singer-songwriter who has died aged 76, reportedly from skin cancer, created an escapist fantasy of island-hopping good times that made him a cultural icon in his native land, even if his fame on the other side of the Atlantic was restricted chiefly to lovers of Americana.  

His musical style blended elements of country, folk and calypso to produce a genre sometimes called tropical rock and sometimes “gulf and western”. The catchy tunes and witty, bittersweet lyrics evoke an alternative universe in which Buffett’s troubadour character swills booze, chases girls, goes fishing and sailing or, as in Havana Daydreamin’ (1976), “just dreamin’ his life away”.

Buffett shrewdly exploited the appeal of his musical vision by investing in bars and restaurants, resorts and merchandise, many of them branded “Margaritaville” after the title of his best-known song, which in 1977 gave him his only Top 10 hit, or with reference to his “Parrothead” followers. Forbes magazine this year estimated his fortune at $1 billion.

The chorus of Margaritaville, sung with Buffett’s easy southern twang, sums up the Buffett ethos: “Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville,/ Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt…/ Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame,/ And I know,/ It’s my own damn fault.’’

Another classic Buffett composition was Cheeseburger in Paradise (1978). Like Margaritaville it dated from the decade in Buffett’s life, the carefree 1970s, when he composed his most enduring tracks, and it was one of the core favourites which Parrotheads knew they would hear at his concerts, backed by his Coral Reefer band.

Buffett: a witty and literate songwriter with a flair for performing

Audiences loved to bellow the easy-to-remember chorus, the words and pumping melody calling to mind a hedonistic dream in which nine-to-five drudgery is entirely absent:

“I like mine with lettuce and tomato,/ Heinz 57 and French-fried potatoes;/ Big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer,/ Well good God almighty which way do I steer,/ For my cheeseburger in paradise,/ Heaven on earth with an onion slice…”

As well as the rollicking singalongs, however, Buffett, a sophisticated and literate man, was equally adept at ballads – notably Come Monday, one of his few other singles to chart, written for his future wife Jane in 1974. Its narrator conjures a palpable world of love and longing: “Headin’ out to San Francisco,/ For the Labor Day weekend show,/ I got my Hush Puppies on,/ I guess I never was meant for glitter rock ‘n’ roll./ And honey, I didn’t know/ That I’d be missin’ you so…/ Come Monday, it’ll be alright,/ Come Monday, I’ll be holdin’ you tight./ I spent four lonely days in a brown LA haze,/ And I just want you back by my side.”

From what he described as a “moderately dysfunctional background”, James William Buffett was born on Christmas Day 1946 in Pascagoula, Mississippi, one of three children, and brought up mainly in Mobile, Alabama, where his parents Mary and James Buffett worked in the offices of the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company.

After 12 years of Catholic schooling Jimmy had a brief spell at Auburn University in central Alabama where, 200 miles from any beach, he gave up surfing and took up the guitar. Moving to the University of Southern Mississippi he joined a folk-rock band, with a regular gig in New Orleans, took flying lessons in the hope of becoming a navy pilot, and graduated in history. By his own account he avoided the draft for service in the Vietnam war after he was found to have a peptic ulcer.

Buffett was having some success with his songwriting and in 1970 moved to Nashville. But when his debut album, the folk-rock Down to Earth, failed to sell, he realised that “my talent lay in working an audience” and secured a series of small bookings in folk clubs throughout the south, eventually discovering the delights of southern Florida.

Buffett’s albums began to pick up interest after his third release, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean (1973), which caused a slight stir with its vulgar party anthem Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw), but also contained the ballad He Went to Paris. Living and Dying in ¾ Time (1974) included his first hit single Come Monday, and with A1A the same year (named after the road that runs north-south down the Atlantic coast of Florida) he hit his stride with songs about Key West, crazy music-making life and the ocean.

The album A1A was named after the legendary Florida highway

His commercial breakthrough was with Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (1977). The songlist included Margaritaville along with the popular title track, and the album went platinum. It was the first of a string of LPs produced by Norbert Putnam which would refine Buffett’s “Caribbean soul” with reggae influences and sell in their millions – while driving armies of fans to his lucrative live shows.

In 1985 Buffett opened the first Margaritaville shop, and that eventually spawned the vast hospitality business Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.

“I’ve run my share of grass,” Buffett sang in A Pirate Looks at Forty, a reference to smuggling bundles of marijuana (in his 1960s youth he also enjoyed speed and acid); but, to the disappointment of his more diehard fans, from middle age onwards the singer embraced clean living, therapy and pursuing conservation causes. He told interviewers that he no longer drank or smoked marijuana, and favoured a low-carbohydrate diet.

Buffett on the Jay Leno show in 2002 Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

He continued working hard on his summer concert tours and, having sailed around Florida and the smaller Caribbean islands (St Barts was a favourite), with his increasing success he was able to buy seaplanes, among them a Grumman Albatross named Hemisphere Dancer, which he flew around the Caribbean and South and Central America in a journey described in his bestselling memoir A Pirate Looks at Fifty (1998). 

His flight bag on the trip included a copy of VS Naipaul’s history book The Loss of El Dorado. He wrote the song Jamaica Mistaica about an incident in 1996 when Hemisphere Dancer was shot, at while Bono of U2 and Chris Blackwell from Island Records were on board, by Jamaican police who mistakenly suspected it of being used for drug-running.

Of Buffett’s more than 30 albums the top-selling was his 1985 compilation Songs You Know by Heart: Jimmy Buffett’s Greatest Hit(s), which has sold nearly six million copies. His other books included Tales From Margaritaville (1989) and a novel, Where is Joe Merchant? (1992).

Sir Paul McCartney visited Buffett during his illness and played on his recent song My Gummy Just Kicked In. McCartney wrote on social media:  “We had a real fun session and he played me some of his new songs. One, in particular, I loved was the song, Bubbles Up… the vocal was probably the best I’ve heard him sing ever. He turned a diving phrase that is used to train people underwater into a metaphor for life.”

After a short-lived first marriage, to Margie Washichek, ended in divorce, Jimmy Buffett married, in 1977, Jane Slagsvol, who survives him along with two daughters and a son.

Jimmy Buffett, born December 25 1946, died September 1 2023